Before Stax recorded a note, before the “old bridge” was built, before The Peabody got its ducks in a row, before The Orpheum Theatre took its first bow, and just as Clarence Sanders rang up his first sale at the first Piggly Wiggly, Russian immigrant Louis Samuels set up shop in Memphis. A skilled carpenter by trade, Louis Samuels fell into the home furnishing business when he accepted an attic full of used furniture in payment for his services. It took him nine trips with a horse and cart to collect all of the pieces from the Peabody Avenue address, but from this unlikely inventory, a four-generation family business was born.
For two decades after that 1916 event, Louis Samuels bought and sold used furniture, employing his carpentry skills to refurbish items as needed. From the time Louis’ son, Henry, was fourteen, he worked half days at the family store, painting dinette sets (then, only $15!) and doing odd jobs. At 16, Henry started making deliveries, driving a truck emblazoned with “Samuels Service Satisfies!” along the side.
“My father bought a lot of bedroom suites to sell at first,” remembers Henry. “During the Depression, nobody bought living room furniture because nobody had living rooms. Everyone was living together during the Depression days, so they had a bed and that was it.”
When Henry graduated from high school in 1940, Louis opened a second store on Main Street, this time offering new furniture exclusively (like bedroom suites for $39.95!). While Louis continued running the used furniture store, Henry took over the new location, selling in the mornings and delivering in the afternoons.
On Sundays, Henry would drive his collection route. “People didn’t have credit cards or bank accounts…most of them didn’t have cars to drive in to make their payments, and they didn’t want to pay seventy cents for the street car…So, I would drive around and make 60 or 70 stops…collect a dollar and a half, two dollars a piece.”
In 1942, Henry had to leave the business when he joined the U.S. Navy. As a yeoman in 1943, Henry married his high school sweetheart, Helen, who quickly became a part of Samuels Furniture Company.
“I remember writing receipts on Saturdays, when the cotton crop came in,” says Helen, smiling. “People would pay down on their new furniture with their crop, then pay the rest of it off when the next year’s crop came in…It was very different from today.” By the time Henry returned from service overseas in 1945, Louis Samuels had closed his used furniture store and purchased the building on Main to expand the new furniture location.
Helen and Henry had three children, Judy, Harry and Lesley. In the late 1950’s Helen took on a greater role in the family business, establishing an interior design service within Samuels called Samuels Interiors. At first, her office was a room in the Samuels home, but by 1967, the endeavor was installed on the balcony of the new Poplar Avenue store.
Harry Samuels took an interest in Samuels Furniture from a young age, working part time at the Main Street store from the age of 14. In 1973, Harry graduated from Vanderbilt and took greater part in the management of the business.
Lesley also took great interest in her mother’s work. She would hold the end of the tape measure for Helen, and “was always good with colors,” Helen says. When she went to college, Lesley majored in interior design, then came home to the family business in 1978.
In 1979, Samuels moved to Poplar and Yates, growing to 4,000 square feet. The next year, Henry passed overall management of the stores to Harry. Under his direction, the business continued to grow. In 1987, the Winchester store opened. In 1989 the warehouse showroom on Scaper Cove followed, and when more space became available in the Poplar and Yates shopping complex in 1991, Samuels took the opportunity to grow even further. In 1997, it became apparent that Cordova was the ideal location for a new store, so the Winchester store closed, and the Dexter location opened. Today, Samuels Office Furniture and Samuels Upscale Consignment Shoppe are the latest developments in this thriving business.
Over time, through the Samuels family’s dedication to quality service and integrity, Samuels Furniture & Interiors became a fixture of the Memphis community. “I have a customer, she was just in the other day,” recalls Henry, “who first came to our store when she was sixteen years old. Her parents brought her in because she was getting married, and needed a bedroom suite for her new home. Nowadays, she brings her own children in to buy furniture. She’s been shopping here over fifty years.”
Helen has similar fond memories. “Some days I have people bring in their children or even grandchildren and they tell me they remember playing with my tape measure as a child. Children have always loved playing with my tape measure.”